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EPA Watchdog: White House Blocked Part of Truck Pollution Investigation, Caused Lack of Public Information

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EPA Watchdog: White House Blocked Part of Truck Pollution Investigation, Caused Lack of Public Information
Semi trucks travel along I94 on June 21 near Lake forest, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Trump administration pushed through an exemption to clean air rules, effectively freeing heavy polluting, super-cargo trucks from following clean air rules. It rushed the rule without conducting a federally mandated study on how it would impact public health, especially children, said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General Charles J. Sheehan in a report released yesterday, as the AP reported.


The gift to the trucking and fuel industry was one of Scott Pruitt's last acts as EPA Administrator before he resigned under a cloud of ethics violations in July 2018. He was alleged to have used tax payer money for first-class travel, a security detail that surrounded him 24 hours per day, an inexpensive lease in a lobbyist's apartment, and secretive meetings with executives from the fossil fuel industry, as CNN reported.

The EPA inspector general not only faulted the EPA for failing to conduct a mandatory study into air pollution and how it affects children's health, but also the White House budget office for failing to provide requested information, according to CNN.

"The lack of analyses caused the public to not be informed of the proposed rule's benefits, costs, potential alternatives and impacts on children's health during the public comment period," the report reads.

The office "refused to provide ... specific responses or documentation," the inspector general said Thursday, as CNN reported. The office claimed that the information was "particularly sensitive."

"Such actions call into question the quality of EPA rulemaking processes and leave the public and stakeholders without the information necessary to make informed comments on EPA regulatory actions," the inspector general's report warned, as the AP reported.

The rule in question pertains to "glider trucks," which are trucks with older engines that do not meet current air pollution rules, but were set to impose emissions standards and production limits in January 2018. Glider trucks are a booming sector of the cargo industry, in which an older diesel engine is refitted with a new big rig body. Emission tests show that glider trucks are far more damaging to people's health than trucks with newer engines, emitting up to several hundred times the amount of certain pollutions, according to the AP.

The New York Times reported that EPA scientists found that these older diesel engines can emit up to 55 times more soot than newer trucks.

The rush to pass the Glider Repeal Rule came after Pruitt met with several executives from Fitzgerald Glider Kits, the largest maker of gliders. Following, the executives welcomed Donald Trump to one of their plants during the 2016 campaign, as the AP reported.

The EPA watchdog found in the report that "Administrator Pruitt directed that the Glider Repeal Rule be promulgated as quickly as possible," without conducting the necessary studies required to implement the rule.

Two years ago, an EPA official wrote in an email that the Glider Repeal Rule did not "attempt to provide any of the cost/benefit type analysis" typically required for rules that are considered economically significant, according to CNN.

"It is my understanding that such analysis (and data) does not exist; that such analysis will not be produced in the timeframe in which we are working; and that, in any event, if such analysis were ever to be produced, it would most likely not be as 'supportive' of the proposal as OMB and others might like," reads the email.

The inspector general wrote that the agency should return to square one.

"We recommend that the agency identify for the public the substantive change to the proposed rule made at the suggestion or recommendation of OIRA, conduct the required analyses prior to finalizing the repeal, provide the public a means to comment on the analyses supporting the rulemaking, and document the decisions made," the report says.

The two Democratic lawmakers who requested the inspector-general's review, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, said the report showed "the troubling extent to which the Trump EPA went to break the law and abuse the regulatory process in order to benefit individual political benefactors from the glider truck industry," according to the AP.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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